On an overcast day in the dusty northernmost Chilean border town of Arica, I cringed when the ticket salesman quoted $100 for a 24 bus hour ride to Santiago (this was, of course, before I’d experienced Argentinian bus prices). Never having paid more than $15 for the same length on even the classiest busses in Peru -only miles away- I couldn’t stomach the price. Instead, Ben and I rode a minibus to the outskirts, and walked until only a trickle of South-bound vehicles speeding towards Ruta 5 left us squinting through the tracks of airborne road dirt. We stuck out our thumbs and a cardboard sign reading “SUR”. Thus began our first- though definitely not last- hitchhiking journey.
As a first-time hitchhiker, I kept my expectations low. Ben thought we’d wait 30 minutes max, but I calculated three hours based on speed and apparent indifference of all the cars by whom we’d already been rejected. The real wait ended somewhere between our two estimates, just as I was beginning to panic with impatience. A beautiful red 18-wheeler, with a magic akin to the Polar Express, flashed its break lights as it slowed past us onto the gravel side road. We ran towards the towering truck as fast as our heavy backpacks would allow and scrambled up the gleaming aluminum ladder as the passenger door swung open wide.
The driver was on the phone, and shushed us as he beckoned us inside with a sweeping hand motion. Ben sat in the passenger seat and I crawled into the bed space as we drove into the desert. The driver hung up and introduced himself as Mario. Because of Chile’s stringy shape, we didn’t need to ask where he was going, only how far. If wasn’t going North, he was going South.
At 40 years of age, Mario had been trucking half his life and was due to retire within the next decade. He didn’t love his wife but claimed not to cheat, though he had five kids from four different relationships. As we drove deeper into the monotonous rolling desert with the crooning female vocals of his favorite band “Esscorpion,” Mario demonstrated the prowess of his driving by maneuvering the truck to one edge of the road and then swerving back to the other side. As he’d already crashed and rolled the truck three times in his life, he was a veteran.
Mario dropped us in the middle of nothingness, where the road forked to the coastal city of Iquique. The sun hung red and low over the vastness of the Altiplano, but no more than ten apprehensive minutes passed until a rotund businessman on his way home from the mines swooped us up. After an hour of listening to his rambling on about the properties of Atacaman minerals, the desert came to an abrupt end and we descended hundreds of meters down the magnificent golden dunes dunes to the city that appeared like a mirage between sea of sand and the sea of water.
We hit the road the next morning after a night in a dirty hostel, again taking a minibus to the southernmost outskirts of town. The narrow coastal road didn’t leave much space for a speeding vehicle to pull over, and we had competition with a fellow hitcher just a few feet away. To our good fortune, another 18-wheeler rolled out of an empty lot and pulled up to where we stood on the median between the highway and a side road. The window lowered, revealing the silent face of the aged trucker who eyed us suspiciously through a cloud of cigarette smoke. I smiled my friendliest, bubbliest smile, hoping to hide my desperation. It must have worked. Silent and frowning, he waved us in.
We took off down the rocky coast and for hours watched the deep blue, seaweed-laden ocean churn angrily along the deserted beaches and watched it wash under the few clusters of boxy wooden houses propped up on rotting wooden stilts that served as summer homes for rich Chileans and permanent homes for seaweed harvesters and fishermen. Jorge’s destination was Santiago, but only confirmed that we could ride the entire way with him once he decided he could put up with us for the next day. When we turned off the coast and rolled back on to the jaded desert that evening, where the only distractions were thousands of little crosses demarcating automobile deaths, I realized that one could easily go insane in the wrong company.
An anomaly of a truck driver that picks up hitch hikers, Jorge was more of a thinker than a talker and more smoke left his mouth than words. But Chileans are romantics, and Jorge boasted of his having not one, but two, mistresses and his success in keeping them a secret from his irksome wife, who had tried to call him the night before while he was with the Iquique woman.
Jorje’s bladder seemed well acclimated to the inconvenience of stopping a truck to pee. While Ben and I squirmed after eight hours of avoiding liquids, Jorge chugged two liters of Coke Zero and didn’t stop until midnight, when we came to a glowing truckers stop selling churrasco and fried fish sandwiches. We ate, and then rode on into the blackness for another two hours, watching the truck eat up the crescent illumination of headlights.
When our trucker finally got sleepy at about two in the morning, we hung our hammocks in the back of the trailer while he napped, but the icy night passing under me felt more like cold marble and made sleep impossible. I curled up on a pile of cardboard boxes in a corner of the trailer and shivered until the engine roared to life just three hours later. We moved back to the warmth of the cabin, but my stomach wasn’t feeling so great thanks to that shifty fish sandwich. I passed out in the cabin bed while Jorge plowed on through the desert.
Two more meals of fried fish sandwiches sustained us until the next day at 6 p.m. when Jorge left us at a bus stop outside of Santiago. Our parting came abruptly and with a slight pang of separation anxiety. The city loomed grey and smoggy and -according to Jorge- delinquent-ridden in the distance. But Jorge exited the truck with us, and as we slung our bags over our shoulders, he looked us in the eye and offered each of us a firm, approving closing handshake. 34 hours together and he didn’t hate us… It was reassuring to know that we hadn’t suddenly become noxious, indecent hippies.
In fact, we’d done good. Our stereotypes towards truckers had been broken down (although maybe a few confirmed) and we’d saved $100. Our 2,000 kilometer taste of Chilean hitchhiking culture was a roaring success, and we’d be soon to do it again.